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Newborn calf care after dystocia

Evine van Riemsdijk Published on 17 January 2014

A fortunate start of life is a key factor for long-term productive success. Directly after birth, the newborn calf is challenged by the extra-uterine environment. The birth process can impair the calf’s adaptive capacity.

Without additional care, this impairment can have long-term consequences. Newborn calf care to support its adaptive capacity is therefore an essential element of herd health management.



Onset of parturition
During gestation, the fetus receives essential elements such as oxygen, nutrients and hormones from the cow through the placenta. Within this nine-month period, the fetus matures into a 90-pound calf. At this point, the uterine space becomes limited, and this triggers a stress response by the calf.

Elevated stress hormones (corticoids) in the calf’s blood are registered by the mother. Consequently, a cascade of maternal hormone changes and feedback mechanisms initiates onset of the parturition process.

Birth process
Early uterine contractions stimulate calf rotation so that the head and the front feet are positioned towards the cervix. Pressure on the cervix initiates hormone release, which causes smoothening of the muscles. This enables the calf to move into the birth canal as contractions continue.

The cow’s hormonal changes promote softening of connective tissue, elasticity of the pelvic ligaments and lubrication of the birth canal. As uterine contractions increase, the calf moves into the birth canal. At some point, the amniotic membranes rupture and the calf becomes hypoxic.

This oxidative stress leads to increased calf movement, which stimulates uterine contraction in favor of the parturition process. In general, the calf is born in three to seven hours after onset of parturition.


With extended calving time, the risk of asphyxiation increases. Asphyxiated calves suffer from respiratory and metabolic acidosis, which could be fatal at certain degrees.

Birth process can be influenced by both the mother (breed, parity, body condition score, stress, weak abdominal contractions, narrow birth canal) and the calf (gender, birthweight, position), and these factors can even be related. In case of a difficult birth (dystocia), traction or even a Caesarean section should be carried out to protect the health of both the cow and the calf.

Special neonatal care
The basic requirements for newborn calf care are a warm and dry environment, hygiene and sufficient colostrum supply. Calves that experienced dystocia or asphyxiation require special care to improve their survival chances.

Studies have shown that the calf’s first priorities, body temperature stabilization and immunoglobulin uptake, are negatively affected by dystocia. This could be improved by management strategies:

Body temperature
Body temperature stabilization can externally be stimulated by coat drying with a towel, sufficient dry bedding, a blanket and placing under a heat lamp. Internally, the newborn calf uses its brown fat metabolism for heat production. Because brown fat reserves are limited, the calf depends on colostral fat to maintain its body temperature.

Cold-stressed calves show low activity and are unlikely to suckle. In the long term, this negatively affects growth rate and immune response. To avoid cold stress and its future consequences, it is important to stimulate the calf’s metabolism by early feeding of sufficient amounts of colostrum.


For immunoglobulin uptake, the calf solely depends on colostrum. Calves who suffered from respiratory acidosis were found to have a decreased IgG1 uptake. Low passive transfer of immunoglobulins is a direct risk for the calf’s health status, as it is continuously challenged by pathogens from the environment.

These bacteria and viruses can cause diarrhea and respiratory diseases, which are a serious risk to the calf’s survival chances or future productive success. To ensure sufficient passive transfer in these calves, timely feeding of colostrum with a high immunoglobulin concentration is a must.

The essence of good-quality colostrum
Asphyxiated calves are often weak and may have difficulties in standing and suckling colostrum. If the colostrum uptake is insufficient, thermoregulation and immunoglobulin uptake are impaired. To ensure that the calf receives the required volume, bottle-feeding or tube-feeding is preferred above suckling at the mother.

Nutritional value and immunoglobulin levels should be high enough to support the weak calf. Unfortunately, maternal colostrum does not always meet these requirements. Especially in these cases, supplementing or replacing the calf feeding with a high-quality colostrum replacer should be considered as an element of newborn calf management. PD

Evine van Riemsdijk

Evine van Riemsdijk
Project Manager
The Saskatoon Colostrum Co. Ltd.